| In My Youth|
|by James Baldwin|
|A decidedly different autobiography, originally published under the pseudonym Robert Dudley, eventually revealed to be James Baldwin. A portrayal of life in rural Indiana in the middle of the 19th century it certainly is, but it is so much more. In the words of Mr. Howland, an editor for the original publisher, 'It is difficult to describe just what there is so remarkable about this book, but it is undeniably wonderful. It is literature. It is a strange combination of autobiography and fiction, and records only the simplest happenings -- the life of people in the Indiana backwoods, the primitive life, the commonplace experiences, the visits between neighbors. To tell about it in this way does not make it sound remarkable, yet it is. The style is simple and clear; there is a quiet humor running through it, and in other places the reading brings tears to the eyes.' Ages 10-12 |
FEVER 'N' AGUR
 THE caravan had scarcely got well started on its journey
when our Jonathan was taken abed with a long-threatened
"spell of fever'n'agur." A pallet was spread for him
on the floor of the settin'-room in the big house, that
being a more suitable place for a sick person than the
dark cabin loft where the boys usually slept. When
Cousin Mandy Jane and I returned from our walk to the
Four Corners, we found him there with the "agur fit"
already upon him.
It was pitiful to see him wrestling in a most helpless
way with the grim, invisible, miasmatic field that had
come up out of the swamps and bottoms to torment him.
His face was wonderfully pale and pinched; his eyes
were dull and lifeless, with dark semicircular lines
underneath; his finger-nails were blue; his lips were
compressed and drawn tightly together over his closed
mouth. Then came the chill. His lower jaw relaxed and
his teeth chattered like the rattling of pebbles in a
"chany" cup. His body shook with a vehemence which,
according to his own statement, fairly made the roof
shingles of the big-house "stand up on end." For
nearly an hour he groaned and tossed, helpless with the
agur fit upon him, aching in every joint, shivering
from head to foot.
A short respite followed, and the fever "came—"
 a raging burning fever that took away his senses and
caused his mind to wander and his white-coated tongue
to babble foolishly. In his delirium he kept calling,
calling, not for mother nor for Cousin Mandy Jane,
"but—would you believe it?—for" Old Enoch's
grand-daughter, buxom handsome Esther Lamb.
It was amusing to hear him, and Cousin Mandy Jane
actually te-heed right in his presence, notwithstanding
his woeful condition. But mother, soon coming in with
a cold-water bandage for his aching head, reproved her
with a look that sent her out of the room.
"Is that thee, Esther, dear?" muttered the poor fellow,
not recognizing his best friend. "I knowed thee would
"It's me, Jonathan," said mother, gently smoothing his
hair and tying the cold-water bandage about his
"Yes, I know it's thee, Esther," he answered staring
into her face. "Thee's a Lamb; thee ain't no Fox.
Thee don't take after Old Enick a bit. I have my
doubts if thee's related to him at all."
He took mother's hand in his big burning palm and held
it very tightly. "Jist thee wait till I sell them
there steers," he said.
"And then what will thee do?" queried mother.
"Why, I'll buy that forty-acre piece down by the
Corners, and build a little house on it for thee and
me," and then he wandered off into incoherency.
Presently, as he tossed about, the cold-water bandage
became loosened and I went cautiously to the bedside to
replace it. He glared at me wildly, and I sprang back
in fear as he shouted, "Git out of here, thee Old
Enick, thee! I'll have Esther n spite of thee. She
 ain't no Fox. Git out I say! If thee wasn't so tarnal
old, I'd give thee the best lickin' thee ever had!"
He made as if he would spring out of bed to strike me;
but mother motioned to me and I retired from the room,
greatly awed by reason of the young man's madness.
"What did he say to thee?" asked Cousin Mandy Jane, an
unfeeling smile still lurking about her mouth.
"He thought I was Old Enick," I answered.
"Well, wasn't that funny? and she te-heed again in a
very foolish manner. "Him and Old Enick don't git
along together very well sence they had that fallin'
"What did they fall out about?" I asked.
"Well, I'll tell thee," she answered "eagerly—she
was always eager to tell secrets—I'll" tell thee.
Jonathan, he put on his meetin' clothes two weeks ago
last First-day evenin' and went over to see Esther.
He's been doin' that, on and off, for a year as thee
knows. But this time he meant business. He went right
into the house, and he axed Old Enick to let him have
Esther;" and here she te-heed again, and looked around
to see if mother or Aunt Rachel was in hearing
distance. Then she added in a half whisper. "And what
does thee reckon Old Enick done?"
"What did he do?"
"Why, he kicked "Jonathan—leastwise," he
pushed him. He pushed him right out of the house.
Only think of it! And he told him, if he ever come
there ag'in he'd set Old Bull on him. Ain't that a
nice way for a elder in the meetin' to do?"
"Who told thee about it, Mandy Jane?"
"Why, Jonathan of course; and he said I mustn't
 never, never whisper a word of it to a livin'
"soul—and" I won't."
"I don't see why the Old Feller don't come and carry
that Old Enick to the bad place," I said remembering my
own experiences with the aged reprobate. "That's where
he ought to be."
"Oh, he's too mean for the Old Feller to have anything
to do with him," answered Cousin Mandy Jane. "He's
jist too mean ever to go to the bad place. And it's my
‘pinion that it was his doin's that made our Jonathan
have this spell of fever'n'agur."
Toward the middle of the afternoon mother came in with
a pleased expression on her face and reported that the
fever had subsided, and that the patient was sleeping
soundly and "sweatin' like a plow horse."
"He'll be purty well again to-morrow," she remarked;
"But the fever'n'agur with come on him again the next
day, I'm afraid. He'll have to keep quiet and take his
medicine reg'lar all the rest of the week."
"And Robert, there, he'll have to be the man of the
farm," croaked Aunt Rachel from her seat in the chimney
"Lands' sake! only think of it," cried Cousin Mandy
Jane. "There's father and David gone to the ‘Hio, and
here's our Jonathan down with the fever'n'agur, and
there hain't nary other male man about the place ‘cept
little Robert. But I reckon that him and me can keep
things a-goin' along about as well as anybody. Don't
thee think so, Robert?"
There was a touch of the rankest flattery in all this,
but in my innocence I did not perceive it. The fact
that I was the only able-bodied "male man" on the farm
tickled my vanity more than you might
 and I immediately began to imagine myself a lord of
creation. Circumstances had made "me—yes, little
me—the" the temporary head of the family. Grave
responsibilities seemed resting upon my shoulders, and
resolved to perform my duty cheerfully and courageously
to the extent of my ability.
The next morning Jonathan rose early and seemed but
little the worse for his combat with the fever'n'agur
fiend. But he was silent and morose and went about his
daily duties in a half-hearted, acidulous manner that
made all the rest of us very uncomfortable. Soon after
breakfast he ensconced himself in mother's old rocking
chair, opposite Aunt Rachel's chimney corner, and
declared that he felt "right smart tired" and thought
he would rest a while "before goin' out to the
clearin'." And there he sat hour after hour, yawning,
dozing, groaning, drinking great drafts of bitter herb
tea, and keeping himself in a flood of perspiration
beside the smoldering summer fire.
"Cousin Mandy Jane," he muttered whiningly, "I reckon
thee and Robert will have to tend to things for a right
smart while till I git over this spell of fever'n'agur.
It's tuck hold of me tarnal hard, and I reckon I'll
most likely have another shake of it tomorrow."
We had already begun to tend to things," and therefore
his remarks were entirely superfluous. Together we
spent the larger part of the forenoon in the new
clearing "rightin' the numerous log heaps and
rekindling the fires that had burned out since
Jonathan's early morning visit to them the day before.
With long handspikes of green ironwood, we rolled the
half consumed logs closer together; we piled the
 "chunks" upon them, and stirred the red-hot embers
until the flames leaped up and clouds of blue-black
smoke ascended toward the sky. In all this labor,
Cousin Mandy Jane proved herself to be a very present
help in time of trouble, but I took care that she
should never forget that I was the man of the farm and
she nothing but an insignificant female too old to be a
girl and too young to be a woman. This "rightin'" of
the log heaps, however interesting it might appear to a
looker-on, was a man's task which neither of us had
ever attempted before. It required both skill and
strength; but we undertook it with a will, and although
a hand was blistered and an ankle strained and a
petticoat scorched in its performance, we finally left
the clearing with hearts beating like those of
conquerors at the close of a hard-fought battle.
This, however, was only one of the score of daily tasks
which we performed, singly or together, with an
unvarying regularity, during the whole period of my
short reign as the only man of the farm. From the
earliest peep of dawn to the last glimmer of the
gloaming I was as busy as the proverbial bee. I drove
the cows to and from their distant pasture. I helped
with the milking and the churning and the
cheese-making. I groomed the wood and prepared the
kindlings for the "cookin' fire." I weeded the garden
and gathered corn for the fattening hogs in the
"lane—and" I gave a great deal of very necessary
advice to mother and Cousin Mandy Jane which they
utterly failed to appreciate or observe.
Often when I was in the midst of the storm and
 stress of varying and exacting duties, it seemed to me
that our "Jonathan—especially on his well
days—might" have offered to lend a hand. But he
availed himself of the sick man's privilege to its
utmost limits, and during the entire period of father's
absence he was about as useful in our household as the
average drone in an overstocked beehive. Whether this
was entirely the result of his illness or whether it
was partly due to an intense hankering for a few days'
rest, no one knew better than himself. On his well
days, which alternated regularly with his chill days,
he spent the greater part of his time in the chimney
corner, drinking his tea and easing himself by groaning
and grunting. But the strangest thing was this: At
about two o'clock each afternoon, he rose from his
chair, put on his heaviest coat, and went out for a
walk, from which he did not return until sundown. One
day, as he was starting out, I had the hardihood to
call after him:
"Where's thee goin', Jonathan?"
He turned upon me with anger flashing from his "agury"
eyes. " 'Tain't none o' thy tarnal business, thee
little Towhead, thee," was his indignant reply. And
with head inclined as though in deep meditation, he
strode away and was soon lost to view in the woods
behind the orchard.
Cousin Mandy Jane had heard him and such was her
amusement that she te-heed quite audibly.
"Thee'd better look out, Robert," she said. " 'Tain't
very safe to meddle with a feller that's got the
"fever'n'agur—I" tell thee that, right now."
"I only asked him where he was going," I said.
"Well, I can tell thee where he's goin'. He's goin'
 over to see that there gal of "his'n—takin'" a
mean advantage of Old Enick while he's away to the
"Hio. But I don't know as I blame him. Esther, she
ain't no common sort of "gal—she's" a Lamb, she
ain't no Fox!" Then she te-heed again, and resumed her
On his chill days, however, Jonathan had the sincere
sympathy of us all. The agur fit came upon him
regularly a little before noon, and it was not until
near sundown that his fever subsided and his pitiful
delirium was succeeded by a peaceful sleeping.
"Nevertheless—thanks to the herb tea and the
sweating process, and perhaps also to this complete
abandonment of every form of labor;—each" fit was
less violent than its predecessor, and at the end of a
week Jonathan had ceased to wander in his mind and
therefore did not get out of his head. This I secretly
regretted, for after I had learned that his temporary
madness foreboded no serious disaster, I had come to
enjoy his rapturous appeals to an imaginary Esther, and
I had possessed myself, as I supposed, of at least one
Soon, also, I grew thoroughly tired of being the man of
the farm. I found that it was an honor which entailed
no end of laborious duties; and before the week had
passed, I was secretly writhing under the intolerable
burdens which had been shifted to my shoulders. There
were so many things to be done that I had no time for
recreation or for reading. My books reposed
undisturbed upon their shelf, and my invisible playmate
was almost forgotten. My legs ached, my back was
stiff, my head was tired. Could it be that the
fever'n'agur fiend was lying in wait for me also? And
my chiefest wish was that father and our David
 would hasten their return from the "Hio so that I might
resign my commission and return to private life.
And my wish was duly and rather unexpectedly granted;
for on the afternoon of the eighth day, as I was
toiling at the wood-pile, I saw a covered wagon coming
slowly up the lane from the highroad. The horses
seemed very tired, the wagon was bespattered with mud,
the driver looked grisly enough with unkempt hair and
unshaven face, and the elderly man who was walking
behind was only partially "visible—yet" I
recognized them at the very first glance. I dropped my
ax and hurried out to the gate to open it.
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